Feb 28

Remind Us Who Is Who

Recently a read a scifi novel and couldn’t keep up with the characters throughout the story. Having an interesting and memorable character name is important, but that’s not enough. I just hate it when characters are names things like Bill, Bob, Bert, Bull, Barren, Berry, Bo, Blue, and Brad. It may seem cute to the author but it’s as confusing as hell to the reader.
As I’ve written in other posts, we have a whole alphabet and it’s a good idea to use it. With a simple alphabet, it’s easy to keep track of what characters have been named with the same letter. Skip around and use different letters.
When you intro a character and you thumbnail him or her with a significant charaterization (bugeyed, big ears, beautiful hair, lovely lips, walked with a limp, hide behind large lens sunglasses), keep track of those descriptions. Use this information in later instances when these characters reappear, but DON’T use the same words. Mix it up and find another way refer to those significant or memorable visuals, audible, or other sense cues.
If a character has dark brown eyes, add the fact that there might be flecks of gold in his/her eyes in a later admission. Items of clothing, physical handicaps, even the smell of a character you mentioned earlier are all elements you can enlarge on or weave into your narration.
It is even possible to blend all characterizations from a person’s name to their clothing, the tone of his/her voice as well as actions and ways to acting and reacting to help complete a memorable character. Someone with the name Loud might, for example, choose bright colors to wear and ride a motorcycle with a thundering engine.
While you may have a corkboard with pictures of your characters, your reader does not. Journalists often use the phrase, “…remembered for …” to fill in background without beating the audience over the head with information. It’s this kind of reminding writers need to employ for their characters who have not been mentioned for several pages or even chapters. This is where your creativity comes in. Tell us again who these people are without talking down to your reader.

Jan 16

Corpse In Canyon

Jack R. Stanley
Corpse In Canyon copy

“Her feet may be in town, but her ass — and the rest of her is in the county,” said Canyon Police Chief Haskell Maddox.

“Obviously she was shot in the city — she just fell into the county,” responded Sheriff’s Patrol Deputy Savanna Breeze.

“That means I’ve got — at best — assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder in the city. She didn’t die until she was in the county. So, this is in the county’s lap.”

Nobody wanted to deal with the murder of Myrtle Dagmar Puckett; the head of the North American Atheists Foundation. But when there’s a Corpse In Canyon, a small town in the Texas Panhandle, it’s somebody’s case to solve and mess to clean up. Sometimes murder is just a bitch.



Sep 17

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I give great advice in this blog — but I just don’t always follow it.

Take for instance my most recent novel, I hit a “writer’s block” moment — a place where I simply didn’t know what came next. What I did know was what happened after the missing piece. I’ve written before that when you hit a point that you don’t know what happens next — but you do know what occurs beyond this point — don’t stop until you figure it out, go on and write what you do know. What you’re missing will either come to you as you go, or you’ll decide you didn’t really need the missing piece.

In one of my screenplays this happened to me and I simple wrote a line of dashes across the page and under it wrote something like, “…somehow they get back to town.” I then picked up the following scene I did know and continued on. As I wrote, it came to me how they got back to town because of something that happened in a following scene. Then I could go back and fill in the missing hole

Well, when this happened to me in my recent e-novel, I didn’t follow my own advice. I stewed a couple of days wondering how to bridge the gap. Finally, when nothing else worked, I picked up the story and went on, intending to do as I said and fill in the sink hole later. As it turned out, I didn’t really need what I thought I did. I ended up leaving out what I thought I needed so badly — and it helped move the story along not to have the missing piece.

So what am I doing here, trying to tell you how wonderful I am? No. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to do that — but it just ain’t true. I face the same problems we all face as writers. But, again, as I’ve pointed out in the past, nobody wants half or 3/4s of a short story, novel, or script. You’ve got to get to the end — get it finished or you’ll end up with nothing at all.

I’ve heard of one writer who collects blog posts, newspaper or magazine stories in a notebook which he rereads before he starts each new project. I’ve considered this and think it’s a good idea — and I’ve even collected a nice collection of material — the problem is as soon as I try to reread it, as soon as I see the title or the headline, I recall what I liked about the piece in the first place — and I skip it and move on to the next one.

Since there are no rules on how to write, figure out what works best for you out of all the advice you gather from as many sources as you can. You’ll discover, I think, that some of it will always be of value to you, but some of it will only apply to certain projects and to certain cases. But that’s the good thing about this whole process, you’re just as correct as anybody else — and your way is right for you — so don’t strain yourself trying to follow someone else’s path. Even writers who have sold millions and made millions don’t have all the answers. They, just like you and I, have to go figure this thing called writing out one day at a time — one project at a time.

Someday you’ll be your own expert — even if you don’t follow your own advice. Who cares? As long as you find a way to get from the beginning to the end and then move on to something else, whatever your way is — is the right way.

My advice is here for whatever it’s worth — but obviously it’s not always of much value — so glean what you can and want to — then go on about your work. You are the only one who can do it.

Sep 16

It’s All In The Casting

The importance of good or great casting can’t be overstated. This is not only true in both stage and screen productions, but it absolutely applies to the writing process. When it comes to the reality of able actors, it is often possible to switch performers on stage for a long running stage production — but that casting change makes it a different show.

Look at the remakes of any of several dozen movies over the years. Each Batman with a different lead has made the character of the “Dark Knight” significantly different from the others. The same is true in the James Bond franchise. Look at the difference made in TWO AND A HALF MEN on TV when Charlie Sheen was replaced with Aston Kutcher? Okay they changed the names of the characters and tried to make the Kutcher character a different person than the one Sheen, played but it’s obvious that each actor essentially served the same purpose in the series.

I’m going to be dating myself in some of my references here, but I’m not trying to fool anyone anyway.

In BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, the producers originally sent Paul Newman the script trying to interest him in playing the part of Sundance. Instead, Newman wanted to play Butch. What a different movie that would have been with Newman as the ace gunfighter.

In the TV series, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, Carl Reiner created the show as a vehicle for himself in the lead role. But after a couple of weeks of rehearsals, Reiner called a halt to the proceedings and said, in effect, “Folks this isn’t working.” He understood the elusive element of chemistry simply was not there. So they brought in Van Dyke and everything clicked. The show which was supposed to be called THE CARL REINER SHOW became the VAN DYKE SHOW and Reiner moved up to play the character of Alan Brady, a character who was never intended to be seen.

Another example of a wise director knowing when he wasn’t the best for the part was in the casting of YOUNG FRANKENSTINE. Mel Brooks who got the original idea from material from Gene Wilder, co-wrote the script with Wilder, and Brooks directed the picture intending to play the part of Igor, the hunchback helper for Dr. Frankenstein. But in the casting Marty Feldman came in and just knocked everyone out with his interpretation of the Igor character. Brooks supposedly told everyone, “That’s it. He’s got the part. I can’t do it that well.”

You may know that Michael J. Fox was not originally cast as Marty McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE. Erick Stoltz, a fine actor who won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1985 movie MASK with Cher and Sam Elliot (not to be confused with the 1984 picture THE MASK with Jim Carrey). Depending on whose version of the story you choose, it was either director Robert Zemeckis or Eric Stoltz who decided his performance in the role wasn’t working after a couple of days or two weeks of filming. When Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox, the magic seemed to work.

All of this is to point out that in writing the characters you create are the cast of-your story. Fascinating, unique, engaging characters with muilti-dimentions make for better reading and a more arresting tale no matter your genre.

In their textbook Play Directing : Analysis, Communication, and Style, Francis Hodge and Michael McLain make the point that if you, “…pick a good script and choose a good cast, you’ll be a good director.” The same truth holds for writers. If you write a good story with a good cast of characters, you’ll be a good writer.

You want characters with their own inner conflicts which will impact not only their actions but their reactions to other characters and the world. As I have pointed out before, perfect people are boring. They have no challenges, no conflicts — everything is too easy for them. Of course, they will always win — against any adversary and they will also always win the love of their lives. Who cares? Such characters are not at all like the rest of us and they are not engaging.

Have you ever noticed how often in a love story the main characters meet and immediately dislike each other or seemingly at odds about something important in their lives? We all know they belong together, but it takes the whole story for these characters to figure it out.

The hero and the villain are obviously on different sides and will clash. It’s that struggle what keeps us reading. Part of it is the “bad boy” attraction, the “anti-hero” draw that engages the reader. Yet, even for minor and briefly appearing characters, complicated or deeper characters with built-in conflicts make it easier to write their dialogue. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun to describe a unique character than it is to have “Cop # 2” or a typical used car salesman.

Cast your story well and the readers will stay with you — interesting characters are like that “spoonful of sugar” that makes the medicine go down.

Mar 28

How Much Description Is Enough?

Used to be that writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens and others would take pages to say, “It’s a fall day” or “…in foggy London town…” or “it was a day just like today.” And characters had to be described in such detail that we’d recognize them if we ever saw them walking down the street. In those times writing was written to be read out loud and enjoyed by whole families or shared with a friend.
Then came radio and without descriptions how would the audience ever know what a character looked like? Imagine hearing something like, “Who is that walking up the gravel sidewalk in the plaid suit smoking that curved pipe?” Such things were common, but unnecessary.
When GUNSMOKE began on radio, they wanted to use the approach used in the mystery series based on the Phillip Marlow character by hardboiled detective series novelist Raymond Chandler. It was a minimalist approach to storytelling using mostly dialogue and little in the way of description. “Who’s the sizzlin’ dame at the bar?” became enough for the audience to get the idea.
In GUNSMOKE, and I know this because I got my Ph.D. writing my dissertation about the radio and TV series, the main character, Matt Dillon, was only distinguished by being the only character who wore spurs. That way we’d know his steps from anyone else’s. He could cross the floor of his marshal’s office, open the door, step down from the wooden sidewalk into the dirt, traverse the street, mount another sidewalk and enter the Long Branch Saloon. The listener could follow all of this by the sound of his steps on wooden floors and sidewalks, on dirt, the sounds of opening and closing doors, and another character saying something like, “Hello there, Matt.” Minimalist.
In screenplays you can’t do much more than thumbnail a character because you don’t know who will be cast in the part. Thus, unless the plots turns on the fact that he or she is a redhead or blond or bald, you don’t need it in the script. Such thumbnailing gives the script reader enough to go on to be able to see the character if not in every detail. Still distinguishing characteristics like scars, tattoos, piercings, or others might be mentioned. More important are those qualities we call quirks, nervous twitches, habits, mannerisms, even handicaps which make the character unique.
In prose the same principals apply. Trust your audience. While you may have an exact image of your character in mind, how important is it really for the reader to know he has large nostrils or wears a particular brand of baseball cap? Read some Robert L. Parker (Spencer For Hire, Jessie Stone Mysteries, or his westerns featuring Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole). For example: “A tall, thin young man in an undershirt stood up from a table near us and walked over to us. He wasn’t heeled that I could see.” After a few words of conversation we learn, “The young man hadn’t shaved lately, but he was too young to have a beard. His two front teeth were missing.”
That’s all we need to know about this character. If it’s important, Parker will tell us more — like his jeans, his boots, his hat, etc. if they’re important to the story.
I hate musicals where the story stops while the cast sings or dances. When the music is part of the story and moves the story forward — and something would be missing if we didn’t have it — then it works.
The same is true with description. Depictions of faces, bodies, costumes and places are best when they are part of the action and the story. Like: He limped up the stairs with blood oozing down the leg of his expensive trousers only to collapse his average sized frame in the dark of the first landing amid the rat droppings, crumpled beer cans, and plastic take-out boxes.
If you realize later that his missing watch is important, you can add it as his body is examined by the cops, or that he has a mob tattoo on his shoulder. We could learn that when the medical examiner checks the body out. You can always go back and add details which you realize later as needed to an earlier description, but do we really need to know his shoe size, the pattern of his socks, boxers or briefs, eye color or the freckles on his butt?
Keep in mind your readers are there for the story and the characters it reveals. Get the hell out of the way and tell the story — and only tell us as much as we need to know. We’ll figure out the rest of it if your story is engaging. Description should add to the readers enjoyment and understanding, not get in the way of the narrative.

Nov 26

Shorter Is Better (“That’s what she said.”)

The risqué ol’ joke in my title was too easy to miss. But the truth is still there — especially when it comes to modern fiction.

As they say in Hollywood, “Less is more.” In geometry they say, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” In comedy the cleverest joke is the one liner. In poetry, the Japanese haiku, the English sonnet, or the limerick are all forms which celebrate the brevity of thought, the economy of words, and a turn, twist, flip, or surprise ending. The point of the limerick is often at the least double meaning and suggestive, or, at its most, direct, down right vulgarity. An often quoted, unknown author’s sample limerick says it well:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

O’Henry was best known for his short stories with a totally unexpected yet profoundly logical ending. Mark Twain once lamented to a correspondent that, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” In Hamlet Shakespeare gave the wise old character, Polonious, the line, “…brevity is the soul of wit….” And one of the more remarkable things about Earnest Hemingway’s writing which had such a profound impact on fiction of the 20th century, was both his efficient use of words and his low key style. Together they continues to influence writers to this day. There’s even an app available on the web called “Hemingway Editor” which will help you achieve some of the economy and straight forward manner Hemingway used in your words.

More modern practitioners of the word thrift include James Patterson, the modern master of best seller, including the Alex Cross series, and the late Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spencer detective series as well as the Virgil Cole-Everett Hitch series of western novels.
Patterson pointed out in one of his interviews that people today like short chapters — I’m talking about 1 to 3 or 4 page chapters. Parker got to where, particularly in his Cole-Hitch series, he would rely more on dialogue than on description — and use short chapters.

The advantages to the conciseness of both chapters and dialogue, but also using the Hemingway economy of description, make for fast, quick reading. With so many books being bought by travelers or people who are on vacation — or people who like to do their reading before they go to sleep — it is this succinct storytelling, in the form of sentences, dialogue, and chapters, that enable progress through a book rapidly. This in turn leaves the reader with a sense of accomplishment as they hastily plow through a novel no matter its length.

Another way of saying this is, “It’s not the size of your tool, but how you use it that counts.”

Nov 22

You Can’t Please Everyone

Believe it or not, not everyone is going to like what you write. Get used to it — and move on.

Hey, there are people who don’t like Shakespeare. At the turn of the 20th century, wit and playwright George Bernard Shaw despised the bard. French writer Voltaire of the 1820s and ‘30s thought Shakespeare was a savage. Russian literary giant, the novelist of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy thought the master playwright as “trivial and positively bad…”

Mark Twain once said, “Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Think about it — there are writers you don’t like. Personally For Whom The Bell Tolls is the only thing (well, besides The Big Two Hearted River) of Hemingway’s I can even get through. So, who is my fav writer? It doesn’t matter. Who is your most beloved writer? It doesn’t matter. If there’s a writer or two who inspire you, that’s all that’s important.

Certain genre you can’t stand? That means certain writers fall into your “bad writer” circle. There are people in whose “bad writer” circle you fall — most likely many people’s. Deal with it. It’s not the end of the world. You’re not writing for them, anyway.

Pleasing everyone isn’t supposed to be your goal. Your writing should be about pleasing yourself first. If you can’t please you, who can you please? If you don’t clearly love the work you do, it won’t be very good. Too many writers get bogged down straining to be everybody’s favorite and miss doing whatever they’re really good at. Don’t let that be you.

Cornelius Ryan, awarded author of The Last Battle (The Battle of Britian), The Longest Day (D-Day) and A Bridge Too Far (Operation Market Garden), wrote seven fiction novels all of which flopped before he found himself as a historical novelist. So the point here is you need to find what you do best — and a hint — it’s something you like, not something you do but you really don’t enjoy.

Critics and “lit” teachers ruin more writers than anything else. They find images, themes, insights, symbols, and messages where only proper spelling exists. As I’ve said before, write what you want to read — and understand you can’t do that unless you are true to yourself. Own up to what you like and what you don’t. If someone takes what you’ve written as an allegory on some issue in their life — so be it.

Read those writers who inspire you — and don’t be afraid to stop reading writers you don’t like. This is a hard lesson to learn. Closing a book after a chapter or two seems like you’re giving up. Deleting a book you just can’t get into seems like failure. But think about this. You only have x number of days and hours to your life. Why waste any of it on writers who don’t ring your bell? Reading is absolutely a part of your job as a writer.

Of course, there’s something to be said for reading enough to know what turns you off. Once you’ve grasped that — move on. Make your own list of good writers. You’ll find it both enlarges and expands over the years. So, you have a lot of writers you’ve never read and you have yet to discover. Be aware, “There is gold in them there pages.” There’s also crap. You know the difference. Trust your instincts. It’ll make you a better writer.

Remember they said even Jesus couldn’t please more than a dozen people at a time — unless he served them lunch. Unless you’re planning to serve food with your work, focus on your words. Do what you need to do. Write. Get your work done.


Nov 18

What Is Your Voice And How Do You Express It?

Some writers spend years finding their voices, finding their points of view in their writing. Too often it’s the voice of successful, classical writers English literature courses key in on. New writers who spend years trying to emulate the voices of their favorite writer are squandering their time and effort.

You already have a voice — a point of view — a way of looking at the world. You use that voice every time you express yourself orally you’re using that voice. The problem comes when you try to put those feelings, that humor, that sarcasm, that sense of honor, the ethics, the faith, and the passion you feel down on the page.

Your voice is there, but it’s difficult to express when you tie it up in all the structure of plot, the dialogue of characters, and especially description where you might find yourself leaning on dictionaries and a thesaurus you never apply to your speech. Remember, too, that when you speak, more than half of your oral communication involves facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and body language. You’re losing all that when all you have is the printed page.

What happens is that writers forget their own voices when it comes to description and plot. Here’s a suggestion, think of yourself as a character telling your story. That character has a particular vocabulary, certain points of reference both historically and culturally. Think about how that character would express him/herself when telling this tale.

Too much proper English, a lack of contractions, and too much self imposed grammatical restraints which might not be true for your character hold your character and your voice in check.

In the old Lone Ranger radio series introduced on station WXYZ in Detroit in 1933, the creator George W. Trendle the station owner and writer Fran Stryker made a point of distinguishing the Lone Ranger by never having him use anything but proper English — no contractions — no incomplete sentences.   That’s counter to one of the most basic goals of general broadcasting — to use contractions to sound conversational. While this did make the “masked man” unique on the show, it isn’t now, nor was it then, realistic.

Language evolves — if it’s a living language. Latin has specific rules, and we know not only what those rules are but how to write and even speak it according to the rules. But remember, starting sentences with conjunctions (like this one) is the way we naturally speak. In fact, true human speech is composed of run-on sentences, ellipsises, where words and phrases are intentionally left out because we know the audience knows the rest of it without our having to say it — partial and incomplete sentences, words and phrases which are emphasized which we represent in print by such techniques as underlining, setting something off in quotes, and/or using italics or BOLD type.

This is also true with modern writing. We accept it without hesitation in poetry and song lyrics.

What if one character said to another, “PMS alert!”

We all know that someone is rightly or wrongly saying that another character is very moody and apt to flip out over anything said or done. It says, “Be careful! Walk on egg shells and be on your best behavior.”

How would your writer — the character you’ve created in your head — describe the scene, another person, or a situation — how would this character speak?

Your voice is that writer/character — it’s you — the real you. Mostly it’s unfiltered, raw, and true to the way that writer/character sees the world. And that’s a hell of a lot more interesting than something totally grammatically and literally proper.

If you need to, write naked. ;-0

Nov 14

I’m Not Going To Reach My Goal — And I’m OK With It

I’m now six chapters into my new novel and I’ve discovered I’m not a two thousand words-a-day writer. I’ve done two thousand a day, but not on this story and not so far. It was my goal, but I’ve not hit it one single day, yet.

Oh, well — it’s not the end of the world. That I can crank out a thousand words a day steadily is an achievement. What I want to point out here is that having a higher goal is good, but there also a lot to be said for being steady and consistent. I am not stopping to try and polish what I’m doing — I hope you don’t fall into that trap. It’s much more important to get the story down, the book written than to have a single or even a couple of highly polished chapters.

Get the work done! Write it! Like I’ve pointed out before, you can always go back fix it later — but too many writer never really become published, even self published, writers simply because they never finish their project.

I wanted to push myself to do two thousand words per day — because I know how much faster the novel will get done — but at one thousand a day I’m still enjoying what I’m doing and I don’t feel forced. In my case, I’m retired and this is my second career. I love my writing time but I only work at it a few hours a day. I have a wife I love and love to spend my time with — it I spent more time at the keyboard than I did, neither one of us would be pleased with it.

If I were younger and trying to get myself established — and had the time and energy of a younger man — a couple of thousand words a day would be very doable for me. I still need a body of work to establish myself as a writer — and at any age that has to be a goal for you.

Of course there are one-book-wonders. Think of Margret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and, until recently, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (I don’t want to get into a discussion if it had been better if her second novel, Go Set A Watchman were never published — which was her dying wish). Then there’s Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man, Emily Brontë’s, Wuthering Heights, Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. It would be wonderful to have a title like any of these beside our name — but if you’ve only got one book in you, you’re not much of a story teller. And what if you’re best work won’t be revealed until you fourth or tenth novel?

So, I’ll keep at my one thousand words a day and stay productive and happy — and writing away. I remember that Ian Fleming wrote all his James Bond novels while on summer vacation in Jamaica. I should do so well. For me the process is the key. I like writing, I like creating characters and telling stories. So, I don’t as possibly prolific as I possibly could be — give in a check in the “don’t give a damn” column. One of my favorite greeting cards of all times showed a happy hound of some mixed breed on the face and a note inside saying something like, “Every dog knows that the whole point of life is to enjoy it.”

Nov 04

Starting A New Novel As Of Tonight

Tonight I begin my next novel. Having just finished MURDER IN MULESHOE, a mystery, I’m moving back to a Western this time and writing the second in my Texas Ranger Chronicles. The first, finished in 2013, was GUNS ALONG THE RIO — in which my main character, a 17 year old young man, joins the Rangers in what became the very first time the Texas Rangers were used in a law enforcement capacity. This was 1858 in the Lower Rio Grande Valley — that part of Texas along the Rio Grande River and the Texas-Mexican border.

My hero, young Trace LaFon, was the son of a immigrant anglo family from Louisiana. He was partnered with Xavier Falcon, the second son of a large and wealthy Hispanic family who had lived in Texas for generations. The young men learn all about the ins and outs of being Rangers along with the process of growing up in the wide open spaces of young Texas.

Now, two years later, I’m back around to picking up the story and moving it ahead as the Rangers take on a new role during the Civil War. One of the chief reasons Texas left the Union in those years was because the Federal government pulled out all the troops assigned to guarding the settlers on the Texas frontier. To fill the gap, the Rangers evolved into the Texas Mounted Rifles, and this dedicated force made a tremendous difference in the lives of families trying to grow and make new lives in Texas.

As I begin, I’ve moved my information from the first novel in the series written in M.S. Word into Scrivener, my program of choice now. I have my title, WEST OF THE FRIO, and I’ve imported my characters list from Guns Along The Rio and I’ve started my outline. I have a few chapters listed with titles that tell me what’s going to happen here.

My goals are to up my daily output to 2,000 words a day and write an exciting, fun Western which will dovetail into the series — and hopefully make my readers want to have more in the future.

What I already have are several books I’ve gathered on my topic from used book stores for background and a couple of three-hole binders filled with research. I even have my first couple of sentences — Experience can either teach you something or get you killed. My Pa used to say, “Make sure your last words aren’t, ‘Well that was stupid! Wish I hadn’t done that!’”

Now all that’s left is to write the novel.


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